Bridge Scholars work to close opportunity gap in Chattanooga [photos]

Khristian Martin practices kicking during a swim period at McCallie School's Bridge Scholars summer program on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The program gives students in underserved communities new learning experiences.

It took Wonjen Bagley and Rebecca Suttles only three months to get their summer enrichment program for underrepresented children in Chattanooga up and going.

"It's a testament to the community and how they're willing to back this program," said Bagley, executive director of Bridge Scholars. "Several sponsors have helped fund us since the beginning and have increased their funding."

Bridge Scholars is a five-week program for rising sixth- to ninth-grade boys who attend public schools in Hamilton County. The program is hosted at McCallie School, and is tuition-free with a $50 application fee that may be waived if a family qualifies based on need.

Suttles, co-founder and senior program director, also works for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga Inc. as director of scholarships.

"There was a year in which very few males were applying for our scholarship, and it struck me, because I knew there were plenty of males getting ready to graduate from Hamilton County schools who had at least a 2.5 GPA," she said.

That is why she wanted to work specifically with boys, Suttles said.

"We just want to provide a solid foundation much earlier so they want to finish college by any means necessary," she said.

During the morning hours, students attend three 50-minute classes that cover language arts, math and science. Then they have lunch, and in the afternoon they apply the skills they've learned through science projects or field trips. The program also offers swimming lessons.

"I'm a straight-A student, but the classes [at school] are too easy for me," said Keyshawn Castro, a seventh-grader at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts, which has the most students enrolled in the program. His family moved to Chattanooga from South Carolina, and this is his first year attending the program.

"My math teacher told me about this program and said I should try it for a challenge," he said, adding that his favorite class is science. "I like it because we get to share our opinions and there isn't always a right or wrong answer."

Castro said he's felt significantly more challenged during his time in the program than he did during his last school year, because his school's curriculum was covering a lot of the things he learned the year before.

"That's probably why I keep getting As," he said. "It's just so easy because I already learned a lot of the stuff. The math here is definitely harder."

Castro said he hopes to become a zoologist and/or veterinarian because he loves animals - both helping them and learning about them.

When Bridge Scholars started three years ago, 34 boys were enrolled. This year, there are 60 students, and the program is almost maxed out.

But Bagley and Suttles hope to expand and serve even more children who are driven and motivated to learn.

"That doesn't necessarily mean they're at the top of their class," Suttles said. "Bridge Scholars gives them an opportunity to hone in on skills that they need to improve upon or build."

Kevin Hughley, a ninth-grader who will be attending McCallie next year, said his grades weren't doing so well, but they improved a lot after he first enrolled in the program in 2015.

Although his favorite class is math, Hughley said his dream job is to be a sports commentator and later pursue law school.

"I like talking with people and discussing things," he said. "I like getting my point across, and I've been able to practice that here."

Nasir Franklin, a seventh-grader at the Center for Creative Arts, has big goals for his future. He hopes to attend Harvard University, he said, and plans on becoming a surgeon or a lawyer.

But on Tuesday, he was busy playing basketball with friends after a morning full of academia. He said he didn't come for the sports; he didn't even know they would be offered, but he thinks it's a great thing. He said he was a straight-A student in fifth grade, and his computer teacher convinced him to attend the program. Now, he said, he continues to get good grades.

Bagley said there are 20 schools represented this year, and Bridge Scholars tries to recruit students from the lowest-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods.

"We want to close the opportunity gap for students," she said, adding that doing that will help students have better job opportunities and, hopefully, close the income gap as well, helping future generations.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.